Don’t worry about tanking, the Patriots are bad enough to do this on their own


The Patriots didn’t tank for Trevor Lawrence two years ago, but they’re in position to tank for Caleb Williams now.

Patriots fans head for the exits during the final minutes of Patriots-Saints. It’s been a while since they’ve witnessed this much losing. AP
  • Bill Belichick

    Bill Belichick hinted at changes after latest Patriots loss, discussed in-game decision to bench Mac Jones

  • The unfathomable has become the reality. The Patriots stink.


Just a note before we begin; if you’re reading this from Chicago, Jacksonville, Arizona, Buffalo, the Meadowlands, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Indianapolis, Detroit, Cleveland, Miami, Carolina, Los Angeles, Tampa Bay, or Houston, then you have to understand: it’s been 30 years since we’ve had to do this sort of thing. Forgive the naiveties. 

There was a brief period only three seasons ago in this space when we suggested the practice of tanking the season for the NFL’s No. 1 draft pick. But even led by the decrepit Cam Newton, the Patriots could only manage to be the league’s 15th-worst team by season’s end. They were even in the hunt for the postseason as late as December. It was terrible.  

There’s a lesson to be learned there. 

Never mind the ethical dilemma it presents, landing a top-five pick in the 2021 draft would have taken some intentional and, perhaps blatant, decisions to throw games. The Jaguars won only once that season. The Jets, twice. The 7-9 Patriots, only in their first season without Tom Brady, couldn’t (realistically) compete with that. 

The good news is, the 2023 Patriots are much, much worse than that team. 

Yes, good news. It’s been purgatory in Foxborough following two decades of unprecedented greatness, an era that was also preceded by another promising stretch spent pulling the franchise out of the apathetic gloom that defined it. The last time the Patriots had the No. 1 pick they had to decide between Drew Bledsoe and Rick Mirer. The last time they had a top-five pick was one year later (fourth overall), in 1994, which turned into Willie McGinest. 

These 1-4 Patriots, led by a petulant prodigy and the presence of a coach who has seemingly quit trying to figure out how the game has passed him by, are certainly bad enough to warrant entry into the Caleb Williams sweepstakes. The USC quarterback, tabbed as the first “sure-thing” since Trevor Lawrence three years earlier, might end up with his second-straight Heisman Trophy later this year. He’s a safe pick for a franchise’s future, the rare Elway/Luck/Manning available only for the league’s worst team. 

We can imagine if the Patriots had tanked in 2020 and landed Lawrence just how much better they may be today. But the reality is, based on how they have ruined Mac Jones, New England would have been the second-worst scenario for Lawrence to walk into during his rookie season (he had his own coach, Urban Meyer, to thank for the worst). But in 2021, we thought Belichick still had a fire for the game (in retrospect, maybe the dog was making the picks) and was competently shooting for the final landmark of his incomparable career, shoving it in Don Shula’s face one, final time. 

That record doesn’t really matter to Bill though, does it? Not as much as collecting that (reported) $25 million paycheck. I think that’s pretty obvious now. 

So, put Lawrence in the same mess as Mac Jones and you’re likely to have the same result. Today, the Jaguars quarterback has an offensive line and Calvin Ridley. They are one of the AFC’s most-promising teams. 

Jones has JuJu Smith-Schuster (part-time). 

In other words, the timing was all wrong. Not only was the team not bad enough to warrant such a discussion, the system currently in place would have done him no differently than Mac Jones. Why would they have built around Lawrence any differently? Today, the team is awful, trademarked by lazy coaching and players who have already quit on the season. It has already lost its two best players (Matt Judon and Christian Gonzalez) on a defensive unit that has even yet to suffer through its “bogeymen” stretch of the season. 

No, this team needs not worry about tanking. On Sunday night, just before the 49ers embarrassed the Dallas Cowboys on national television, announcer Mike Tirico tried to temper expectations for the Dallas defense, which has had a tremendous start to the season. But the Cowboys have also only played the Giants, Jets, and Patriots, Tirico noted, officially labeling New England as an NFL footnote. 

The 42 points the Cowboys allowed was one more than the team had surrendered over its first four games of the season. That includes last week’s win over New England, a 38-3 walloping that wound up the worst loss of Belichick’s career. 

He only had to wait one week for his second-worst, Sunday’s 34-0 loss to the New Orleans Saints. 

The six-time Lombardi trophy winners are a laughingstock of the league. But they’re also finally bad enough to prompt change. 

Williams has openly talked about joining the NFL with a younger coach and seemingly has an affinity for the Dolphins, who don’t exactly looked primed to land the No. 1 pick. He and his father have also looked at situations he might land in, like in Arizona, and suggested that if the situation isn’t right for him, Williams would be fine heading back to USC for another year. He did, after all, make $2.6 million in NIL earnings for 2023, which is much better than I managed my junior year. 

So, even the “sure thing” isn’t a sure-thing. There’s also the problems that lie in teams like the Broncos, with one win on the season and now losers to the Jets. The Cardinals are better than their 1-4 record shows. The Bears might have the top two picks in the draft (they own Carolina’s as well) and not draft a quarterback. The Giants and Raiders might both be as bad as you are. Are the Patriots bad enough to go winless the rest of the season? 

Have you been watching? 

Which is why we are officially allowed to begin the discussion, which isn’t exactly where you want to be in Week 6 of the NFL season. Yet, here we are, burdened with a novelty that can be the norm elsewhere. 

If the Patriots are in the position to land a player like Williams, they would do so into a new coaching system, a clean sweep in Foxborough that would give reason for hope and promise. New beginnings everywhere throughout the building. 

Or, they could win a few games and end up only bad enough to wind up with Drake Maye, Quinn Ewers, or JJ McCarthy, any one of whom could be the next Mac Jones, Trey Lance, or (gulp) Zach Wilson. 

Don’t worry about that. This team is awful and Belichick won’t be around to trade the top pick for value. 

What time are USC games on anyway?